Whoever said paddling down the Whanganui River for six days was going to be easy was lying.
Either that or I missed the memo about what this New Zealand Great Walk canoeing journey from Whakahoro to Whanganui was really supposed to be like.
And for someone who is not only a novice but who has a slight fear about canoeing and kayaking, and who had to do a course prior to starting the 3,000 Te Araroa trail down the length of New Zealand, this fact is not exactly a minor detail.
Yay, I had thought, six days of sitting on my arse in a boat just gently paddling down a majestic and otherworldly river as part of #WalkNZ. No wearing of smelly, muddy boots. No heavy backpack on my back. No sweating, nor getting out of breath huffing my way up giant hills.
And furthermore, I’d be able to pack some fresh fruit and veg and a couple of bottles of alcohol because I wouldn’t have to carry the extra weight on my back.
Yip, it sounded like bliss.
How wrong I was.
It all became apparent during the safety briefing that this wasn’t quite the six-day relaxing fairytale I had envisaged.
The word “rapids” stood out like a sore thumb and stoked fear into my heart.
“I’m sorry,” I thought. “Er rapids. What the? Isn’t that like frothing white water. You know, fast?”
I looked at my canoe partner who had had about as much experience canoeing as a banker has had milking cows. Her face was white and she looked borderline wanting to chew her fingernails off.
No one else looked particularly phased.
Were we in the wrong safety briefing?
By all accounts, no.
For 40 minutes we were given details about how to negotiate rapids, which rapids to look out for, how to brace when we were about to hit a hazard (hit hazards!!!), and how to deal with a capsize as one in three canoes capsize.
Capsize! My heart sank.
This wasn’t what I had signed up for.
By the end of the 40 minutes I was truly freaked out. I had the slight shakes, my armpits were sweaty, and I was doubting myself big time.
Everything I’d learned on the kayak and canoeing course I couldn’t remember. I had a fear of capsizing. I felt there was no way I would be able to do this.
My canoe partner and I looked at each other. Her face mirrored my own.
“What the hell?” I managed to stammer.
“I have to admit I’m a little bit shitting myself,” she said.
I nodded. “I’m totally freaking out.”
The hour plus bus ride along a gravel road that I’d already walked to our starting point at Whakahoro didn’t help as visions of worst case scenarios bubbled into my head: capsized and broken canoes, drowned electronics, injuries and safety rescues.
But by the time we had reached Whakahoro I was coming to terms with the new adventure. I could do it. All would be ok.
That was a short-lived feeling after the test run for being signed off for the river journey made clear my canoe partner and I were about as skilled in canoeing as a chicken making honey.
It was woeful, abysmal, horrendous, as we veered wildly down the river, me attempting to steer and losing control of the canoe, then having major difficulty turning around in the current, getting stuck on a rock and pathetically powering back upstream to the canoe operator.
He looked at us with concern on his face.
“That wasn’t pretty,” he said, later admitting – after an intense one-on-one How To Canoe For Beginners session and the decision that I shouldn’t steer – it was a worry.
But he seemed to think we had improved enough in the space of 20 minutes to sign us off for six days of paddling.
And so we were off, left to our own devices. Just us, a canoe and six heavy barrels of our stuff hurtling alone down a seemingly untamed river.
The first rapid came much too soon, its frothing white waters an angry warning.
The fear was palpable as we hit the waves hard, barely passing through them in one piece.
The second and third rapids were soon upon us. We wobbled, misjudged the entry point, headed sideways at pace towards a large log in the water (a hazard), felt the canoe tip ominously as white waves rushed towards us, and then some how miraculously the canoe regained its composure and floated to safety.
“I have to stop for a fag,” my canoe partner managed to say.
She clambered out of the canoe on wobbly legs, saying “I’ve got the shakes” and proceeded to puff heavily on her tobacco like her life depended on it.
“I hate rapids,” she exclaimed.
Unfortunately those first three rapids weren’t the last.
For the next five days we took on vicious white water, with pressure waves a metre high in some cases, dodged boulders, felled trees, and other hidden obstacles, and paddled into ridiculously strong head winds that if they weren’t pushing us back were pushing us side ways.
And the sound track in all cases was the screech of my partner’s voice commanding me to “paddle”, “paddle harder”, “harder”, “other side”, each time her voice inching an octave higher.
Yet despite our novice skills and near hyperventilation status we didn’t capsize. Not once.
Not even on the notorious 50/50 rapid coming into Pipiriki – where 50% (if not more) of canoes attempting the rapid capsize.
But it was close.
We zoomed around a corner into giant waves, seemingly floating in slow motion across the first two and then slamming right through the third.
I was drenched.
The canoe tipped dangerously to the right in the ongoing waves as I desperately leaned my body weight to the left in an attempt to right the vessel.
We miraculously balanced and came out of the rapid; us and our boat in one piece but three quarters full with water. It took almost half an hour to bail the water out.
Adrenalin surged through our blood. We high-fived.
And so our days took on this form. But the rapids, the hazards and the head winds weren’t the only aspects I’d failed to appreciate when considering this journey.
No one had told me about the river sections where there was no current, where we had to pull hard on the paddles to get us through the jelly-like water. No one had told me we had to carry our heavy barrels of stuff (including all the extra heavy food we had bought) uphill for 200 metres to our campsites each night and then back down each morning. No one had told me about the risk of sunburnt inner thighs, nor the bruised knees from sitting in the brace position for hours on end, nor about the sore arm muscles that hurt so much at one in the morning that you have to dose up on ibuprofen.
That said, it was an adventure like no other.
Towering cliffs covered in native forest graced the gorge as the river snaked through a land out of an Indian Jones movie. And on the three-day stretch through to Whanganui, where the cliffs turned to hills and pasture, willow trees lines the banks where geese and goats talked to each other.
But it was the last day that was magical. Waking up at 4am when it was still dark, with the moon and stars out, we packed up to be on the river by 6am to catch the outgoing tide. The water was warm and the mist hung on the surface in a surreal way in the quiet of the dawn.
Just us and the river – and the knowledge that we could do it and everything would be ok.
Apologies for the lack of photos – because of my fear of capsizing and losing my phone/camera, I packed it away for most of the journey.